by Cliff Rold
Boxing has lots of belts, too many arguments comparing fighters from different weight classes who can’t fight, and too few of what still makes it a sport.
Boxers fight in weight divisions. Weight divisions are defined by their champions. Not every man who claims the mantle of champion lives up to it. Those who do rarely get the celebration they deserve.
Once a year or so, it is worthwhile to point out some of the men who exemplify what it means to be a champion. Not all of them hold lineal titles. Some may not have clear claim to being the best in their class. But these are the men who best display what the competitive point of it all really is, or at least should be.
So, no, this isn’t about any pound-for-pound silliness. Noted in 2009 for the second annual list and repeated since, let’s consider the mantra for the annual “Champ for Champ” analysis:
A champion isn’t just a guy who holds a belt. A real champion is a fighter who holds his crown for a while, matching at least semi-regularly with real top ten contenders, and leaving the ring still buckling the strap around his waist.
In September 2011, the selections were :
10) Timothy Bradley – WBO Jr. Welterweight (Since Vacated)
9) Toshiaki Nishioka – WBC Jr. Featherweight (Since Vacated; Since Defeated)
8) Juan Manuel Marquez – Lineal World Lightweight (Since Vacated)
7) Marco Huck – WBO Cruiserweight
6) Sergio Martinez – Lineal World Middleweight
5) Carl Froch – WBC Super Middleweight (Since Defeated; Won IBF)
4) Vitali Klitschko – WBC Heavyweight
3) Bernard Hopkins – Lineal World Light Heavyweight (Since Defeated)
2) Amir Khan – WBA/IBF Jr. Welterweight (Since Defeated)
1) Wladimir Klitschko – Lineal World Heavyweight
As 2013 begins its full swing, and before the big players really get going, a look at the fighters who best exemplify championship excellence since the last time around.
This is Champ for Champ following the close of 2012.
10) Orlando Salido (39-11-2, 27 KO) – WBO Featherweight – 2 Defenses
While he managed only one title defense since the last time around, it was a doozy. His upset of Lopez in 2011 was a genuine shocker. His rematch stoppage, an off the floor epic, was one of the best fights of the year. As it stands, we are a short time away from Salido accepting the challenge of one of the division’s most threatening contenders, undefeated Mikey Garcia. Compare Garcia and Lopez to the fare fellow Featherweight titlist Chris John has faced. John is closing in on the division record for consecutive title defenses but hasn’t faced anyone with the regard of Lopez or Garcia in years. In general, Salido has had the brass to fight almost anyone who mattered at Featherweight for the last eight years. With 17 defenses, John could easily be here. He makes it easier to be excluded.
Another candidate for this slot was unified 140 lb. titlist Danny Garcia, but his choice to take a rematch with a shopworn Erik Morales whom he’d already widely defeated worked against him. He’s still very early in his title reign and, in deep waters at 140 lbs., it would be no surprise to see him emerge as a model champion in the year ahead.
9) Takashi Uchiyama (19-0-1, 16 KO) – WBA Super Featherweight – 6 Defenses
With the exit from the class of Adrien Broner, the leader at 130 lbs. is clear. Japan’s Uchiyama is beautiful, classic boxer with serious power. Since stopping the undefeated Juan Carlos Salgado to win his title in 2010, only Michael Farenas has avoided a stoppage loss. Their fight ending in a technical draw. He closed 2011 with a Knockout of the Year candidate against veteran Jorge Solis and ended 2012 with a knockout of undefeated contender Bryan Vasquez. If Yuriorkis Gamboa sticks around at Jr. Lightweight, there is no better divisional fight to make in the year ahead than a showdown with Uchiyama. Sometimes the world of boxing is too big to get everyone who deserves it a chance at the global stage. For the sake of boxing fans, and the fighter, let’s hope a better turn awaits Uchiyama. For now, his title reign is worthy of note.
8) Roman Gonzalez (34-0, 28 KO) – WBA Light Flyweight – 6 Defenses
With five wins since September 2011, three of them title defenses, Gonzalez continued to define himself as the class at 108 lbs. He walked through former titlist Ramon Garcia in April. He got more than he bargained for in the surprising Juan Francisco Estrada. Estrada was largely unknown but proved his worth as a contender in the ring and Gonzalez showed real champion’s chops. Sometimes the unknown can be greatest danger. Gonzalez had moments where he looked almost surprised that Estrada could take his best stuff and keep dishing it out. Then, like a champion, he bit down and surged. He could never put Estrada away but he kept victory within his grasp. Across two classes, he’s now won nine title fights (ten including interim fare) and he may finally be ready to have the year everyone has wanted since he first exploded on the scene. Ioka, lineal Flyweight champ Toshiyuki Igarashi, and Brian Viloria have all been mentioned as options for the year ahead. Gonzalez is willing. He’s been willing for years. Will he finally get the chance to capitalize?
7) Marco Huck (35-2-1, 25 KO) – WBO Cruiserweight – 10 Defenses
Huck didn’t spend his entire year at 200 lbs. He started 2012 moving up to Heavyweight and earning the WBA belt from Alexander Povetkin. He didn’t get it, an odd outcome but nothing unusual in fistiana. Turnabout being fair play, Huck ended the year getting a decision some saw as fortunate against veteran former titlist Firat Arslan. In between, he got a draw in one of the year’s best fights against proven challenger Ola Afolabi, a man he’d previously beaten. One of the longest reigns in the sport continues, but it had its hiccups. To Huck’s credit, he continues to face quality challengers and there is no reason to expect less anytime soon. To move forward though, victories need to be clear and unification wouldn’t hurt.
6) Nonito Donaire (31-1, 20 KO) – Lineal World Jr. Featherweight – 1 Defense
Since September 2011, Donaire has beaten five consecutive current or former titlists, four of them in the class he seized control of in his 2012 Fighter of the Year campaign. The end of a short title run at Bantamweight gave way to winning a vacant WBO title at 122 lbs. against Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. He immediately unified in a fight with IBF titlist Jeffrey Mathebula, dropping the tough African in round four. He followed with a stoppage of the most established man in the division, Toshiaki Nishioka before a showcase outing against an outclassed Jorge Arce. Vazquez, Mathebula, and Nishioka were all serious top ten fare but the best of challenges remain. WBC titlist Abner Mares is calling for a détente between their rival promoters. WBA titlist Guillermo Rigondeaux shares a promoter and has a substantial cult following who believe he can derail Donaire. The test of a champion is to confront the best challengers who emerge. Who Donaire signs to fight in 2013 will determine whether he merits a pass or fail as a divisional king.
5) Brian Viloria (32-3, 19 KO) – WBA/WBO Flyweight – 3/0 Defenses
When last this list was concocted, Viloria had just won a title in his second weight class. What has followed has been exemplary. Viloria beat the leader of the class one down (Giovanni Segura), avenged his first defeat (Omar Nino), and unified titles at 112 lbs. against arguably the most dangerous foe available (Hernan “Tyson” Marquez). All of those wins came by knockout. While the geography of boxing may prevent Viloria getting a crack at the current lineal champion (Toshiyuki Igarashi), he’s one doing the yeoman’s work of a divisional king. The only thing he doesn’t have that the men directly in front of him do is longevity of reign. With a possible challenge from former Strawweight and current Jr. Flyweight titlist Roman Gonzalez looming in the year ahead, longevity will face a serious obstacle. If he takes the challenge, he’ll more that continue to validate his place as a model champion.
4) Andre Ward (26-0, 14 KO) – Lineal World Super Middleweight – 1 Defense
He doesn’t fight enough. That’s about the lone bad thing that can be said about the king at 168 lbs. His willingness to engage in the Super Six tournament showed a desire for championship glory. In toppling the rugged Carl Froch in December 2011 to unify the WBA (now WBA “Sooooper”) and WBC belts, and lay claim to the vacant lineal title, he cemented the glory. As it stands: the WBA regular belt is held by Mikkel Kessler, the IBF by Froch, and the WBO by Arthur Abraham. Ward beat them all with room to spare. He may not have all the straps, but there is no more undisputable champion to be found in any division; no other champion holds a win over every other notable titlist in his class. In his lone defense, he didn’t choose soft. Ward accepted the challenge of reigning Light Heavyweight Champion Chad Dawson, who came down in weight to try to lift Ward’s crown. Ward handed Dawson a heavy beating and the first stoppage loss of his career. Ward is currently recuperating from shoulder surgery. That’s not going to help the activity issue. In the ring, he’s got everything else covered.
3) Vitali Klitschko (45-2, 41 KO) – WBC Heavyweight – 9 Defenses
This may have been the first year since the elder Klitschko came back from his retirement in 2008 that he could say he fought the tougher competition of the two-headed Heavyweight dynasty. It wasn’t a banner year for either man, but Klitschko’s willingness to take on Dereck Chisora after Chisora’s widely decried decision loss to Robert Helenius turned out to be a win on multiple fronts. The build to the fight was all about the antics of the challenger. They included an entertaining “Face-Off” like British preview, a weigh-in slap to Klitschko, and Chisora spitting water into the face of Wladimir. It wasn’t all classy, but it built to the moment. Then came the fight and, for the first time since Vitali returned, he found someone who could fight him back. It ended up a dominant win, but Klitschko lost some rounds and fans got their money’s worth. A defense against the hapless Manuel Charr was more of what too much of Vitali’s return reign has been: second tier challengers while Wladimir gets the more established fare. In a slim Heavyweight division, there just hasn’t been enough to go around. Still, the couple of rounds Vitali lost to Chisora may have been the only rounds he’s lost the Corrie Sanders fight. It doesn’t get more much more dominant than that.
2) Sergio Martinez (50-2-2, 28 KO) – Lineal World Middleweight – 5 Defenses
Marvin Hagler once said, paraphrasing, it’s hard to get up and train when sleeping in silk pajamas. One way to overcome that might be to win the world title and still feel like you’re chasing the crown. Since September 2011, Martinez added three defenses to his reign as Middleweight king. It was the last of them that he wanted most of all. Surviving a final round scare, Martinez came off the deck to hold on to a massive lead, regain his WBC belt, and make clear to the entire world who the king at 160 lbs. is. One fight prior, he got a game challenge from Matthew Macklin. Like a true champion, Martinez took the best Macklin could give, solved him, and turned out the lights. Both Macklin and Chavez were legitimate top ten threats, exactly the sort of foes a real champion should be expected to face. He’s already slated to face another in his next defense versus Martin Murray. The only knock one can make on Martinez as Middleweight champion is that, while he’s facing top ten foes, he isn’t exactly a take all comers champion. Dmitry Pirog wanted a shot and couldn’t get it. Gennady Golovkin appears a bigger threat than Pirog was and is, for the moment, finding a similar fate. If Golovkin can continue to win, he could open the door for Martinez to unseat the longtime number one man on this list.
For now, it’s become an annual event to see the next man on top…
1) Wladimir Klitschko (59-3, 51 KO) – Lineal World Heavyweight – 6 Defenses
For the fourth year in a row, there was only once choice even if 2012 was far from a banner year for the younger Klitschko. His title defenses on the year extended his numerical impression: 3 WBA, 6 lineal, 9 WBO, and a whopping 13 IBF title defenses. The problem with the three fights he took in 2012 was the level of opposition.
Tony Thompson, sandwiched between the dreadful Jean Marc Mormeck and the undeserving if gutsy Mariusz Wach, turned out to be the best challenger of the year. As a retread, it wasn’t saying much but at least Wladimir put him down harder than he did the first time. His challengers this year were clearly less than some of the men below him, but the sum of Wladimir’s reign is taken to account. So is the condition of the division. He has so thoroughly dominated that this is what is left.
Top contenders like Eddie Chambers and David Haye already tried and failed. The best of the next wave of challengers is either not quite ready (David Price, Tyson Fury, Kubrat Pulev) or, to date, unwilling (Alexander Povetkin).
When was the last time a champion had challengers killing this much time avoiding a title shot? It’s been awhile. It says a lot about how Wladimir is regarded by his Heavyweight peers. He might not always thrill in the ring, but he sends chills up spines of other big men. There are better fighters ‘pound-for-pound.’ There is no one literally better than Wladimir Klitschko right now and he wears the Heavyweight crown with rare authority.
He remains boxing’s premiere example of a champion.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene and a member of the Transnational Boxing Ratings Board, the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org